Academic journal article Independent Review

The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality

Academic journal article Independent Review

The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality

Article excerpt

The Not-So-Wild, Wild West

In a thorough review of the "West was violent" literature, Bruce Benson (1998) discovered that many historians simply assume that violence was pervasive--even more so than in modern-day America--and then theorize about its likely causes. In addition, some authors assume that the West was very violent and then assert, as Joe Franz does, that "American violence today reflects our frontier heritage" (Franz 1969, qtd. in Benson 1998, 98). Thus, an allegedly violent and stateless society of the nineteenth century is blamed for at least some of the violence in the United States today.

In a book-length survey of the "West was violent" literature, historian Roger McGrath echoes Benson's skepticism about this theory when he writes that "the frontier-was-violent authors are not, for the most part, attempting to prove that the frontier was violent. Rather, they assume that it was violent and then proffer explanations for that alleged violence" (1984, 270).

In contrast, an alternative literature based on actual history concludes that the civil society of the American West in the nineteenth century was not very violent. Eugene Hollon writes that the western frontier "was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today" (1974, x). Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill affirm that although "[t]he West ... is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life," their research "indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed. Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved" (1979, 10).

What were these private protective agencies? They were not governments because they did not have a legal monopoly on keeping order. Instead, they included such organizations as land clubs, cattlemen's associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.

So-called land clubs were organizations established by settlers before the U.S. government even surveyed the land, let alone started to sell it or give it away. Because disputes over land rifles are inevitable, the land clubs adopted their own constitutions, laying out the "laws" that would define and protect property rights in land (Anderson and Hill 1979, 15). They administered land claims, protected them from outsiders, and arbitrated disputes. Social ostracism was used effectively against those who violated the rules. Establishing property rights in this way minimized disputes--and violence.

The wagon trains that transported thousands of people to the California gold fields and other parts of the West usually established their own constitutions before setting out. These constitutions often included detailed judicial systems. As a consequence, writes Benson, "[t]here were few instances of violence on the wagon trains even when food became extremely scarce and starvation threatened. When crimes against persons or their property were committed, the judicial system ... would take effect" (1998, 102). Ostracism and threats of banishment from the group, instead of threats of violence, were usually sufficient to correct rule breakers' behavior.

Dozens of movies have portrayed the nineteenth-century mining camps in the West as hot beds of anarchy and violence, but John Umbeck discovered that, beginning in 1848, the miners began forming contracts with one another to restrain their own behavior (1981, 51). There was no government authority in California at the time, apart from a few military posts. The miners' contracts established property rights in land (and in any gold found on the land) that the miners themselves enforced. Miners who did not accept the rules the majority adopted were free to mine elsewhere or to set up their own contractual arrangements with other miners. The rules that were adopted were often consequently established with unanimous consent (Anderson and Hill 1979, 19). …

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